Pomp and Circumstance

© 2016 by Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

The two theme ideas that have been hounding me lately are quite different from each other, one being the ultimate in the grandiose (“The Idea of God”) and the other so bland as almost to amount to trivia (“Academic Regalia”). Naturally, being the lazy and cowardly person that I am, I opted for the latter.

It all started this way: Last week our hometown university published a notice in the local weekly announcing who the guest speaker at this year’s graduation ceremony would be. There was a fairly lengthy description of the speaker in the paper; but, because he was an alumnus of the same university as I, I wanted to know more; so I used a search engine. Unfortunately but naturally enough, this year’s speaker hadn’t been announced yet when the program was published online. However, serendipitously I happened upon some information that was just as intriguing.

Firstly, I was surprised to see that college administrators can be just as dictatorial as the Misses Grundy’s we encountered our first year in grade school — when they separated us into “blue birds” and “red birds”. Here is how the university organized the commencement (the blue and red highlightings are my addition):

IMPORTANT DOs and DON’Ts for graduates and guests:
• Attend rehearsal at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 13th so you know the marching order.
• Arrive by 9 a.m. on the day of graduation, Saturday, May 14th.  The ceremony will begin at 10:00am.
• Leave valuables with family members during the ceremony.  There is no secure place for your belongings.
• Wear proper academic regalia.
• No selfies, hijinks, or inappropriate behavior as you cross the stage.
• Cell phones should be turned off or placed on silent.
• Students are expected to return to their seats after the on-stage presentation. The last person is just as important as the first.
• Diplomas will be mailed two weeks after commencement.  If you choose to pick up your diploma, please contact the Provost’s office.
• Guests should arrive early as seating is on a first come, first serve basis.
• Use of air horns, noisemakers, or other disruptive items is strictly PROHIBITED.
• Guests are expected to remain in their seats during the ceremony.
• Photos are allowed in the designated area only. To avoid congestion, please limit the number of guests on the venue floor.
• Guests should sit in the designated areas only; seats on the floor are reserved for faculty and graduates only. Do not stand in the aisles.

My, my! I innocently had thought that by the time one graduated from college, he or she would have grown out of pranksterism, but here we are with the graduates being warned not to engage in “hijnks” or any other sort of “inappropriate behavior” as they cross the stage. And I was curious whether anyone during any previous commencement had blown an “airhorn”.  The wording reminded me of our current political caucuses and primaries. Of course, most of the other instructions are moderate and understandable, assuming the exercise is going to exhibit any organization at all.

Well, I said “moderate”, but I don’t know if that is really the true case or not. For, look at the blue-highlighted item: “Wear proper academic regalia.” Elsewhere in the instruction pages the graduates are informed where they can “buy” the caps and gowns — at the campus bookstore — but the cost is not listed. When I was graduated from high school in Dallas in 1958, we didn’t have to buy our caps and gowns; but, then, that was presumed to be the only occasion we were to use them. When one gets into the levels of “higher learning”, there can be multiple occasions for wearing the cap and gown (or the gown at least) unless the graduate changes his/her academic field along the way, the reason being that the gowns are color-coded.

I counted twenty colors in the local university’s regalia, but the number of colors will vary from school to school depending upon how many degree programs at the school; the maximum number is eighty-five, but I don’t know of any university that offers that many degree programs.. We are way beyond the “blue bird”/”red bird” stage, folks! I won’t burden you with all twenty colors and their particular fields, just the few that caught my attention for different reasons.

The first one (on their list and mine as well) is Agriculture with its maize gown. According to its Wikipedia article, the term “maize” can be applied to “a variety of shades, ranging from light yellow to a dark shade that borders on orange”. Of all the colors on the gown list, this color — that of our American corn — best matches the academic field it signifies. Hurray for the farmers and county agents!

The next one I noticed (their third on the list) was Accountancy, Business, Commerce: drab. Now, I realize that business majors are often the butt of campus jokes, but isn’t this carrying the humor a bit too far? Drab? Drab is “a dull, light brown color, the color of undyed wool”. I won’t say any more about it.

The colors for Education (light blue) and Philosophy (dark blue) intrigued me because they are both blues; but is there any significance, other than a limited number of colors to draw upon, in their intensity difference? My imagination hints the answer: “Yes!” For, Education can be a light-hearted field, particularly if the graduates are going into elementary school teaching; while Philosophy, as I discovered too late, is usually way too dark for safe living, especially if you concentrate on Schopenhauer and the Existentialists.

A little further down the list we come upon Journalism (crimson). Being a former journalist, I was naturally curious about that color and why a shade of red was chosen, the color often associated with anger. I would have expected to read “yellow”, not out of any association with cowardice but rather harking back to the historical period of “yellow journalism”. On the other hand, such a choice would have been almost as bad as the drab tacked onto Accountancy, etc.

As for the students having to purchase their caps and gowns, I suppose at least some of them will end up donning them again on a few later occasions, when they earn higher degrees, even honorary ones. And, of course, those who become college professors will have to don theirs at least twice a year for future commencement ceremonies. As for those who entertain no further academic ambitions as such, they can just box their caps and gowns and stow them away in their attics with other memorabilia.

I don’t have any problem with old academic regalia myself, for I did not attend either my bachelor’s or my master’s graduation ceremonies: I had my degrees mailed to me. My memory of that tedious high school graduation with 494 students marching up to the stage at Dallas’ State Fair Music Hall to receive our individual degrees while a band doggedly played Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over again was too vivid a memory.

Finis

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